New Zealand: The employment relationship in the aftermath of the quake

Last Updated: 28 February 2011
Article by Geoff Bevan and Pheroze Jagose

As Christchurch moves from the rescue and recovery phase, many businesses and employees will need to know what is going to happen in their workplace.  This guide has been prepared to assist employers in the wake of the 22 February earthquake.  It is necessarily brief and general, and is not a substitute for specific legal advice about your situation.

Key messages

Put staff safety and welfare first.

Take time before making any decisions, particularly if they affect staff safety or long term employment.

Communicate with staff, especially before making any key decisions.

Be compassionate, understanding, flexible and pragmatic. 

Don't rush back - prioritise safety

Employers are required to do all they can to provide a safe workplace.  

If your business can operate, you must assess risks to employees, contractors, visitors and people around the workplace before you allow workers back.  Put safety first.  Where there are hazards, they have to be eliminated, minimised or isolated.  Keep assessing whether it is safe to work.

Emphasise to staff that they have an obligation to keep themselves safe, and that they need to be extra vigilant and aware of any hazards over this time.  Be clear that they shouldn't do anything to risk the safety of themselves or others, even out of a desire to help. 

Things to think about

  • Are buildings structurally stable? 
  • Is basic sanitation (running water/toilets) available?
  • Are there any unusual risks (is machinery unstable?  Have there been any spills or contamination?  Are there live electrical cables or gas leaks?)
  • Do you need specialist assessments or assistance, or additional safety equipment to deal with these risks?
  • Are emergency exits/stairways still useable?
  • Do you have a plan to deal with aftershocks?
  • Are staff safe and able to work? (Most will be suffering trauma and loss to one degree or another).
  • Be aware of and comply with any instructions or advice from local authorities.

Stay in touch - keep your employees informed

Communicate proactively.  As your situation becomes clearer, let staff and any unions know:

  • what is (and isn't) expected of them
  • how your business has been affected, and what losses will be covered by business continuance insurance
  • what support, if any, you can offer
  • what support the business (or other staff) may need, and
  • who employees can contact if they need help/support (can you provide counselling or any other assistance?).

What do your agreements say?

You should check your employment agreements and any relevant policies.  Most employment contracts won't cover this type of situation, but some will. 

Do I have to keep paying employees?

Generally, yes.  By law employers need to pay employees who are ready and willing to work, even if no work is available.  However, there are some exceptions and qualifications to this rule:

  • some employment agreements might give employers the power to suspend employees without pay (most agreements won't).  We suggest employers take advice before using this type of power
  • some employment agreements allow employers to reduce hours of work, or only require payment for work actually completed (subject to minimum wage legislation), and
  • there is no obligation to provide casual employees with work or pay beyond any existing roster or pre-arranged work.  (Be careful though, often many employees who are regarded as "casuals" aren't actually casuals by law).

That said, the overriding need here is to be understanding, compassionate and flexible.  Wherever possible, solutions should be discussed and agreed, not imposed.

Do I have to keep paying my employees if they can't or won't come to work?

We encourage you to talk to employees and try to come to an agreement.  Can the employee work from home?  Can he or she make up time at a later point?  If the employee wants significant time off, can you agree on a mixture of unpaid and paid special leave?  Can the employee take annual leave?

Normal entitlements apply.  Employees are entitled to take sick leave if they, their partner or a dependent is sick or injured.  Employees receive a minimum of 5 days sick leave each year, and can accrue sick leave from year to year up to a maximum of 20 days. 

Employees are also entitled to up to 3 days bereavement leave when a relative dies.

I can't pay forever - are there temporary options to give me breathing space?

Agreed unpaid leave

Employers and employees can agree on unpaid leave.  These agreements should be recorded in writing (an email exchange or handwritten note, preferably signed, is fine).

The Department of Labour website sets out the effect of unpaid leave longer than a week on holiday accruals.

Temporary work with other employers

Can you arrange temporary work for some of your staff with other firms while you get your business operational?  In some cases (such as essential services) other companies may have an immediate need for well trained employees.

The simplest way to achieve this will usually be to give your staff unpaid leave so that the other employer can engage them directly.

Annual leave

If the work closure is to be lengthy, employers can direct employees (without their agreement) to take leave without pay.  However:

  • the employer must first try and reach agreement
  • staff must be given 14 days notice of any direction
  • employers can only direct staff to take leave to which they are "entitled" (as distinct from leave which has been accrued),1  and
  • employers must make sure staff have enough leave so they can take two weeks leave in one block at some point during the year (usually this is at Christmas). 

Agreed reductions in remuneration or hours of work

Both parties can agree to temporarily reduce hours of work (or pay, where work is not available).  In normal circumstances this wouldn't happen, but if there is no or reduced work, it might be the best way for employers to maintain their workforce.

Here are some things to think about. 

  • Any reduction in wages or minimum hours requires genuine and clear agreement from the employee. 
  • The agreement should be recorded in writing.  A letter (which both parties sign) is normally fine. 
  • Both parties should take advice (to save money, employers might want to write up a draft letter themselves, which they can take to their usual adviser). 
  • If employees are engaged on a collective agreement, the letter will normally be signed by the union, and subject to the variation procedures in the agreement.
  • When drafting the letter, look at the employment agreement.  What are you actually agreeing to change?  Do you need to change anything else?
  • That letter of agreement should:
    •   be clear
    • state how long the change will apply for, and what happens at the end (presumably you will revert to the hours/pay that existed immediately before the letter), and
    • state that the employee has been given a reasonable time to take legal advice about the change (generally two or three days, but it may need to be longer in these circumstances).

What help can we expect from the government?  

A government announcement on wage subsidies is expected shortly.  We suggest businesses wait until this assistance is announced and understood before taking any significant steps. 

For further information, please contact the lawyers featured.

In preparing this advice we have drawn on the Department of Labour website, which we recommend to you as a source of further information (particularly around health and safety).


1. What is "entitled" leave?  Staff only become "entitled" to leave (4 weeks) after 12 months service.  For example, someone who has worked for a year and a half without taking any holidays will have four weeks of "entitled" leave and two weeks of accrued leave. 

The information in this article is for informative purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice. Please contact Chapman Tripp for advice tailored to your situation.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions